Wednesday, 9:00am
19 March 2014

Freestyling text and image

The Graphic World of Paul Peter Piech

By Zoe Whitley
Designed by John Morgan
Four Corners Books, £20

What can we learn from Paul Peter Piech? Fraser Muggeridge hails an overlooked but highly original graphic artist

As a second-year undergraduate student at Reading in the early 1990s, I was shown the linocut posters and prints of Paul Peter Piech as inspiration for a project, writes Fraser Muggeridge. I hated them.

To me all this crude wonky woodcut stuff was not typography or graphic design, it was not beautiful or well done. How blinkered and narrow-minded of me, as two years ago I came across the work again at Reading and fell head over heels in love with its energy, power and vibrancy, and above all its complete disregard for all the conventions of graphic design.

Paul Peter Piech, Haiku, Taigi, ca. 1990. From the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading.
Top: Vote (Lies, Lies, Lies), 1973. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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This latest offering from Four Corners Books sits alongside previous publications on Sister Corita and the posters of the May 1968 Paris Uprising. Handsomely designed by John Morgan, this book will certainly raise the profile of a man who has largely been overlooked in recent graphic design history. The work doesn’t neatly fit into the category of printmaking, private press, art, graphic design, typography or illustration. It is none but all at the same time – how exciting.

Paul Peter Piech (1920-1996), a graduate from Cooper Union School of Art in New York and Chelsea College of Art in London, worked as an art director on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is his private press work of large prints and posters from the 1970s to 1990s that this book focuses on. Zoe Whitley’s chronological essay, full of insights, tells the definitive story of Piech’s life. This is followed by 125 prints reproduced at a good size so you can actually see the work and read the text, which is crucial to understanding each piece.

Falklands Falklands Falklands, 1984. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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America, open your eyes, 1973. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Piech was a graphic artist with a social and political message to communicate, through a skilful, creative and highly original combination of image (predominantly people) and text (lifted quotations) – the key components of graphic communication.

With his experience in printmaking, linoleum offered a cost effective and fast way of producing work, free from the technical constraints and limitations of letterpress types. Text could fall within images, text could wrap and bend and even become part of the image as in ‘I would challenge you today’ from 1981, in which Martin Luther King’s upper body is built from a quote by his wife, Coretta King.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing, 1995. From the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading.

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The limitations and possibilities of hand-cut lettering with little or no planning is apparent throughout. Piech developed a unique flowing freestyle of dense upper and lowercase mixed lettering. Spelling mistakes are forgiven, with misprints and happy accidents celebrated. (But please don’t try and make a digital font from this as it just won’t work. This is lettering not type design.)

CIA, CIA, CIA, 1963. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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There are a couple of surprises also, from 1981 an image of Saddam Hussein accompanied with the text: ‘The good leader and wise ruler is the one who feeds his people’.

What can we learn from Piech? Well we might be inspired to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon linocutting and printing a short run. But more importantly this book highlights the relevance of printmaking within graphic design through experimentation, individuality and creativity – a lesson for all of us.

Cover of The Graphic World of Paul Peter Piech, by Zoe Whitley, showing a self portrait of Piech (Four Corners Books in association with V&A Publishing). From the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading.

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Fraser Muggeridge, graphic designer and founder of Typography Summer School, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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